Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Notes — Thoughts Of A Voyeur

When it comes to book collecting, I wouldn’t even qualify as a dabbler. But over the years I’ve had a few brief but passionate obsessions, which led to pitifully small and erratic collections of the works of a few out-of-the-mainstream authors I admire. Among them are James Purdy, Paul Bowles and Robin Maugham, Somerset’s nephew. None of this was done with the eye of an investor. These are books of various editions, bindings and wear — whatever I could find and afford.

About ten years ago and over the course of a few months, I picked up a dozen or so Georges Simenon books — all novels that did not feature the famous Commissaire Maigret, a legendary mystery series character I never warmed to. However, I thoroughly enjoy Simenon’s other, strange little novels. I say “little,” and I mean that in more than just number of pages. They are, in fact, typically short and the narratives are straight forward, unembroidered. The novels are driven more by character than plot. And in the end, they are mostly “little” tragedies. These aren’t about grand figures suffering great falls. Instead, they are based on more ordinary people taking wrong turns. In essence whatever happened to them could happen to any of us.I was reminded of this earlier infatuation with Simenon because of a story in a recent New Yorker. The writer not only discussed Simenon’s Olympian sexual exploits, but also touched on his failure to achieve the literary status he craved because the frequently lurid nature of his work put off the literati in charge of honors. I dug out my stash of his old books. A few of them are first U.S. editions and in pretty good condition. But the one I remember the most was one I read all those years ago in a tattered paperback. The title is November. It seems unlike anything being written today — or at least anything I’m aware of, though hardly lurid by today’s standards — and certainly not that big blockbuster of a novel that publishers yearn for.

At any rate, November is a great little book with a great little story. Don’t take my word for it. The St. Louis Post Dispatch said: “If you don’t know Simenon at all, this is the place to start, where he’s in absolutely top form.” Newsday said that Simenon has written a “ . . . fascinating and highly literate mystery story with tremendous psychological overt ones."

I’ve just reread it. Most of it takes place in a dark and gloomy little house in Paris. The house is occupied by an emotionally distant father, a paranoid alcoholic mother, a passive daughter who would escape it all if she had an ounce of ambition, a passionate but ineffectual son and… and the cheerful housekeeper who, as she brings a little life to the broodingly inert family, unwittingly, it appears, pokes the festering wounds.

Reading Simenon’s standalone novels, much like stories from the not quite obscure novelists mentioned above and the more recognized Ian McEwan’s early novels, makes me feel as if I am eavesdropping on real life — getting a glimpse of those things I am not supposed to see, people with their guards down, exposing the kinds of vulnerabilities and flaws that make us human. These books remind us that we live in our own little worlds, create our own, little realities. Here the narrator, the daughter, makes an observation:

“Walking in the streets, I have always been impressed by the thought that everybody one sees is the center of his own universe and that his preoccupations loom larger than what is happening in the world around.”

I can enjoy epic novels and films that span generations, the stories that make us feel a part of the great unfolding, where the characters become our friends and connect us to universal truths. However, the stories that appeal to me most are the small, intimate stories that one catches on the other side of the keyhole, stories about people escaping the confinement of the small worlds they have largely imposed upon themselves. Finally free for a few moments from their programmed personalities, they strike out. The results, however, may not be pretty.

Each of us, Simenon seems to say, is a lost soul in our own little world. These souls might be boring and ineffectual, or fascinating and frightening, full of hope or despair, passionate or phlegmatic; but escaping the consequences of our natures, repressed as they might be, is nearly always impossible.

CAPTION: (top) Georges Simenon (right) 1978 Paperback Book Cover

Monday, November 28, 2011

Blatant Promotion, Down For The Count — Book Number Three: Iron Glove

This is the third in a series of Monday posts about the four early Deets Shanahan mysteries — “From the Beginning” — just now reissued in trade paperback and e-book formats.

Being a writer is, in some ways, like being a parent. We’re not supposed to have favorites. But I do. And Iron Glove is one of them. I’m not entirely sure why. I think this is the book where I began to appreciate just how much all of the characters take on lives of their own. One character in particular refused to be the man I wanted him to be and his character turned out to forcefully shape the story. It was also the first time I took Shanahan out of his city and the familiar environment in which he found comfort and confidence. It was, for me, a great way to dig more deeply into who he is and what drives him as a private investigator. There is a sense of character evolution from one book to the next. The recurring characters learn from life experiences. While each book is self-contained in terms of plot, reading them from the beginning provides an added dimension — the arc of Shanahan’s life. One way to look at them is that the books that feature him are chapters in one very long book. We are numbering them for those who want to keep them in order.

What the story is about:

Iron Glove is about a woman, found naked and floating in a small lake. She was the wife of an Indiana senator and half of Washington's “golden couple.” Within hours of finding her body in a canal, police arrest a young Latino boxer believed to be her lover. He has motive, means and opportunity. Another dead body later — along with some answers that seem too pat for the P.I. — Shanahan dives into the dirty side of politics, the dark side of passion, and the hideous secrets the killer is desperate to hide.

What the reviewers said at the time:

"Tierney's 'Deets' Shanahan series offers characters of depth and sensuality, and well-placed swipes of razor-sharp humor." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A fine book about Washington politics, international art swindles, murder, mayhem, and a deep dark secret.” — South Bend Tribune

"A series packed with new angles and delights." — Booklist

"Keeps the reader intrigued with (Shanahan's) cogent observations of human nature and his interaction with police officers, his mistress and the various other characters Tierney draws so well." — Indianapolis Star

Friday, November 25, 2011

Film Pairing — Raymond Chandler's Marlowe, Bogart or Mitchum?

Friday’s double feature presents an opportunity to compare the performances of two legendary actors as they play one of the two most famous American private eyes in literature and film. Both played Raymond Chandler’s famous creation, Phillip Marlowe, in versions of The Big Sleep.

Of the seven actors who have played him on the big screen — Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, Elliott Gould, James Garner and Robert Mitchum — two set the standard. While I know there are those who would disagree. Some point to surprisingly excellent performances by Elliott Gould and Dick Powell. James Garner in the role also has fans. It still comes down to Bogart, who surprisingly played Marlowe only once, and Mitchum, who did it twice.

The story follows Marlowe, in the employ of a rich old man, General Sternwood. Marlowe is hired to stop a blackmailer who is about to reveal embarrassing photo

graphs of one of the General’s two wild daughters. The blackmailer is murdered, but that only complicates the situation, and Marlowe has a bigger job. He needs to find both a missing husband and a murderer.

I’m really a contrarian at heart, so I wanted to go against conventional wisdom and like the Mitchum version better. Not so. The old black and white Humphrey Bogart film is far superior in almost every way. Sometimes Robert Mitchum’s seemingly effortless acting is good. He never overplays it. Here a little effort might have paid off. He’s almost phoning it in. Sarah Miles, playing Sternwood’s older daughter, is down right ditzy and can’t hold a candle to Lauren Bacall’s smart and sexy characterization. Martha Vickers, in the older film, plays the crazy younger sister and she does crazy far more believably than Candy Clark’s feeble, flailing attempt. There were some great moments in the later version. Watching Richard Boone and Oliver Reed as heavies was a pleasant surprise. And the cars. Great automobiles.

Humphrey Bogart, at 46, was a little older than Chandler’s Marlowe, who was described as 33 by the author. Mitchum was 60 when he played the shamus. However, Marlowe was supposed to be tall and well-built, more like Mitchum and not at all like Bogart who was short and thin. No surprise here. This is Hollywood. There is word that the diminutive Tom Cruise will be playing the 6’5” brute, Jack Reacher, on the big screen.

Those were not the only differences in the two films. The Bogart version was in black and white, took place in L.A. (though director Howard Hawkes didn’t take much advantage of the location) and in roughly the timeframe the book was written. The Mitchum version was in color and for some unknown reason took place in late ‘70s London, which might explain Sarah Miles hair. The changes didn’t add anything.

Despite the later version’s shortcomings, it’s difficult to ignore a movie based on P.I. fiction by one of its founders. If you find my comments on the Mitchum film too off-putting you can substitute one of the other films based on Marlowe. The character was also featured on HBO, the BBC and on other television and radio shows. He was portrayed by many different actors. For the best online information on fictional private eyes, including writer Raymond Chandler and his character Marlowe, go to The Thrilling Detective.

Another option is to pair the Bogart version of Chandler’s Marlowe with Hammett’s Sam Spade also played by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, thereby putting the top two American private eyes up against each other.

If you choose the both versions of The Big Sleep, watch the Mitchum version first and finish with the classic. To accompany the films, tonight, we come back to Bourbon, I think. Most of the characters in both films drink it straight — not even on the rocks. General Sternwood would have suggested brandy, and perhaps recommended that it be poured into a glass of champagne. In the Maltese Falcon, Spade goes down with a mickey in his brandy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Putting the "Special" in Specialty Bookstores

This is the last in a series of posts about San Francisco’s bookstores. While their numbers are dwindling, there are still many one-of-a-kind shops in various one-of-a-kind San Francisco neighborhoods. Click here for the complete list.

Omnivore Books on Food. Cookbooks, cookbooks and cookbooks. And more — all sorts of books related to food and drink, old and new. Some are autographed. It’s the kind of place you’d expect in a city where chefs are celebrated as much as baseball players and movie stars. And, in fact, the brightly lit store hosts many foodie events — from special food tastings to chef/author events. A check on Yelp, indicates Omnivore gets pretty much five stars from everyone, with special kudos to the owner. If you have a friend who has everything and likes to cook, this might be the right place to shop for gifts.

3885a Cesar Chavez Street, (415) 282-4715,

Chronicle Books is a local publisher of fine books and has three locations in the City where (only) their books are sold. Not to disparage their offerings, however each of the great-looking, well-stocked stores suggests more of a fun gift shop than bookstore — with emphasis on trends in style. In addition to all the pretty books they carry blank journals and stationery. Lots of stuff for kids, and adults with coffee tables in need of adornment. Definitely visiting any one of the three great stores in any one of all three great neighborhoods is worthwhile, especially around gift-giving time.

680 Second Street, (415) 537-4200

1846 Union Street, (415) 345-8435

865 Market Street (Westfield Centre) (415) 369-6271

William Stout Architectural Books on Montgomery carries more than 20,000 books on two floors in San Francisco’s fascinating Jackson Square, an interesting, architecturally rich neighborhood tucked between North Beach and the Financial District. It is also home base for small, but dedicated, architecturally-oriented Stout Publishers. Most of the rare or out-of-print books are at the Berkeley store. However all stores carry a wide range of American and international titles about architecture, old and new, as well as books in all areas of design. Though professionals in these fields may find this not just a pleasant, but necessary resource, anyone interested in design will find the most comprehensive collection of inspiring books on design anywhere in the City. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful. Visiting the Montgomery Street story is a quality experience. Highly recommended.

804 Montgomery Street, (415) 391-6757

1605 Solano at Tacoma (Berkeley), (510) 356-4740

678 Mission Street, (415) 357-1860

Monday, November 21, 2011

Blatant Promotion — The Kids Are Not All Right, Book Number Two, Steel Web

This is the second of four posts about the early Deets Shanahan mysteries — From the Beginning — just now reissued in trade paperback and e-book formats.

When I wrote the first Shanahan, Stone Veil, I had no idea that it was the beginning of a series. I wrote the first novel simply to submit to a competition. As it turned out the book was a finalist in that competition, was nominated for a prestigious award, was optioned for a movie, and received really good reviews.

The publisher, St Martin’s Press, encouraged me to write another novel featuring Deets Shanahan. This time, I wanted to play up the age issue. I placed the elderly detective in a situation where he would have to interact with a couple of kids. It turned out Steel Web was not only fun to write, but as I wrote it I began to realize the series wouldn’t require me to be a slave to a formulaic, repetitive task. This was my biggest fear.

Instead, I was able to develop the main character and, not incidentally, create an evolving, rich relationship between the P.I. and the woman in his life. Over the life of the series, many wonderful characters have come and gone and many have stayed — and grown as well. These characters are not part of a formula. Their very different natures determine the arc of the story. Second novels are often a disappointment. This one stayed strong.

What the story is about:

Two sixteen-year-old boys break into a house looking for small change. Instead they find more money than they ever dreamed possible. Unfortunately, they also discover the blood-spattered body of an undercover cop. The kids make a big mistake. They take the money. With fingerprints all over the victim and blood on their shoes they give the prosecution an airtight case against them. Enter Shanahan who uncovers a few secrets among the rich and powerful that might give the defendants a chance to escape the death penalty.

What the reviewers said at the time:

"An extremely intelligent, masterfully plotted novel with extraordinary characters, carefully crafted and finely polished. Don't overlook it." — Booklist

"The Steel Web is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery." — Mystery News

"Fast-paced, wryly told, and evenly balanced — solid detection combined with warm, empathetic characterization." — Kirkus Reviews

Friday, November 18, 2011

Film Pairing — A Night with Nighy, Wild Target and Glorious 39

The common thread (or threat) of this double feature is Bill Nighy. The British actor is not a household name here in the colonies, but he is gaining visibility from having played the hilariously disgusting Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean and having been nominated for acting awards for performances in such jewels as Notes on a Scandal and such television masterpieces as Page Eight and State of Play. Tonight’s pairing gives you an idea of his range and two movies to enjoy from the comfort of your sofa.

In Wild Target, a powerful art collector (Rupert Everett) hires a meticulously professional hitman to kill a woman (Emily Blunt) who ripped him off with a clever scam. There is a lot of wonderful British silliness in what is essentially a caper gone wrong movie. Bill Nighy plays the hitman — it’s a family business — who goes astray, failing to fulfill his promise to the vengeful art collector and live up to his mother’s strict business code. There are twists and turns in this 2010 comedy directed by Jonathan Lynn, including a hitman to hit the hitman and the mother, played by Eileen Atkins, who has a little hitting on her mind as well. Martin Freeman and Rupert Grint also star.

Glorious 39 also has a magnificent cast — Nighy, Julie Christie, David Tennant, Christopher Lee, Eddie Redmayne and Romola Garai among them. This alone would be enough. But it needn’t be. It is a richly filmed story that alternates between now and World War II. Spies, politics, unexplained deaths and most of all keeping secrets — at all costs — keep the characters and the viewers guessing as the civilized veneer begins to peel. This 2009 film isn’t a thriller, despite claims that it is. You’ll only be disappointed if you approach it this way. This sedate film is all about character. The takeaway isn’t about what you can see, but about what you can’t — a kind of lackadaisical evil.

Nighy’s performances are understated in both. It seems to be his trademark. The films set entirely different moods — one being on the silly side and the other with a serious, more classical approach. The characters that Nighy plays are at opposite ends of the spectrum as well, yet Nighy bridges them subtly and beautifully.

It’s a slow, though entirely pleasant evening. A bottle of white or rose would work with the first film. Brandy is highly recommended for the second.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

OLD GOLD — P. B. Ryan's First Gilded Age Mystery Back In The Limelight

Early works by some of our best, current crime writers have been out of print for years. But times are changing. Many of these highly praised novels are available again as e-books and or trade paperbacks. “Old Gold” is a periodic blog feature that focuses on these reissued treasures. Here's P.B Ryan’s story in her own words.

“Six historical mysteries featuring governess Nell Sweeney.” That was what it said on the contract Berkley Prime Crime sent me in August of 2002. Yes, it was a six-book contract. Berkley had no intention of letting me slip the noose, and I was fine with that — thrilled, in fact. After years of writing medieval romance —always heavy on my first love, mystery and suspense — I was finally going to get to write real, honest-to-God whodunits. Historical whodunits, no less, set in post-Civil War Boston.

Urban historical settings have always fascinated me, especially 12th century London and 19th century...well, any 19th century American city. Barbara Hambly’s brilliant Benjamin January mysteries, which take place in New Orleans in the 1830’s, were a major influence on me, but being a northeasterner myself, I knew I wanted either New York or Boston. Since Berkley already published a successful series set in New York, Boston it was.

My friends call me “the Research Slut,” with good reason, because I absolutely do not know when to stop. When I choose a particular era as a fictional setting, I need to learn every freakin’ thing there is to learn about life in that time and place. I’m not talking about historical events, although they do figure in, of course. I’m talking about how things looked and smelled and felt, how people thought and talked, what they wore and ate and cared about. I spend months documenting what I learn from books and the Internet, and then I use about 1% of it in any given book.

My biggest pet peeve with historical fiction is that it can come off as pedantic, with info dumps that yank you repeatedly out of the story, making what should be an engaging work of fiction feel dull and slow. From the first book of the series, Still Life With Murder, I sought to create a world my reader could truly get lost in. My favorite letters from readers are the ones that say, “I was awake till 2:00 am finishing this book, and then I immediately started the next one.”

If I can ruin someone’s sleep, I consider it a job well done.

For more information on P.B. Ryan and her books, please click here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Books In Other Languages

Many of the more interesting bookstores carry books in languages other than English. For example, as previously reported, Modern Times in the Mission has a great selection of books in Spanish as part of its offering. However, there are also independent bookstores in the City that specialize in books in languages other than English.

You want a book by a Russian, written in its original language? Prepare for a visit to the Inner Richmond, where you will find Globus, a small, pleasantly crowded bookstore featuring new, out-of-print as well as rare and antiquarian books in Russian. The store resides in a small business district with an interesting assortment of shops and restaurants.

332 Balboa Street, (415) 668-4723,

The European Bookstore is what its name suggests, a place to go for books, magazines and other items in various, mostly European languages. While the Larkin Street entrance might be a little off-putting, the inside of the store is quite the opposite. The staff is welcoming but not intrusive. You are free to wander among the European classics — primarily in the original French, German and Spanish. The two-story, one-of-a-kind bookstore is open on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The location is a couple of blocks from the interesting restaurants in the neighborhood now known as Little Saigon.

925 Larkin Street, (415) 474-0626,

Eastwind, much like its Japanese counterpart, Kinokuniya in Japantown, has more than one store in the U.S. There is a store in Los Angeles as well. And also, like its Japanese counterpart, this Chinese bookshop has a broad selection of titles in many areas — politics, poetry, philosophy, language, cooking, music, fiction and non-fiction. They also feature books about other Asian cultures. The store is below street level and can be easily overlooked on busy Stockton, where all things Italian meet all things Chinese. In addition, the store has a selection of CDs, DVDs, comics, and musical instruments and calligraphy supplies. They are located between San Francisco’s equally legendary North Beach and Chinatown. The choice of restaurants and shops in the area is dizzying.

1435 Stockton Street, (415) 772-5888,

Pacific Book Arts is located in the City’s other Chinatown. In fact it is in the very heart of bustling Clement Street. If you want to read the new Steve Jobs bio in Chinese, this is the place to go. Besides books in Chinese on all subjects, they have a strong and interesting collection of calligraphy supplies. Just as in Old Chinatown, there is no shortage of interesting shops and restaurants in this part of the Inner Richmond. The store, a couple of steps down off the street, is right next to the Green Apple Annex.

524 Clement Street, (415) 751-2238

One of the few, if not only stores of its kind in the U.S., Arkipelago, the Filipino bookstore, offers a fine collection of books about and by Filipino writers. It also acts as publisher for many emerging Filipino writers. In addition to its specialty bookstore status, and its support for Pinoy writers and artists, Arkipelago provides resources for educational institutions and libraries to learn about the Filipino culture and they host events of interest to people interested in that community.

1010 Mission Street, (415) 553-8185,

Monday, November 14, 2011

Opinion — Unauthorized eBook downloads — Pirating or Sharing

CNET executive editor David Carnoy, author of mystery-thriller Knife Music had this to say earlier this year when he discovered his work had been pirated: “I had the strange reaction of being both dismayed and weirdly honored that someone had selected my book to strip free of its copy-protection and include as part of a collection of ‘quality’ e-books, many of which were from very good authors.”

The other day a friend of mine, Baby Dave, having received a Google Alert bearing my name told me the eBook version of my most recent book, Good to the Last Kiss, had been made available for free. My reaction was similar to David Carnoy’s.

What bothered me the most is that this was a book in which I did the most research. There was not only time involved, but because I was trying to learn about the mind of a serial killer, research wasn’t always a pleasurable experience. Next I wrote the book. And edited it. And edited it again. And I did the long and sometimes exasperating search for a publisher. Finally, the book is published.

And somebody steals it!

All right, that is a provocative phrase. We’ll get to that. Another question was “why me?” I wasn’t alone. Several authors were on the list. Many were talented and respected writers. One that I was particularly aware of had maybe a dozen books on the list.

A dozen? He has a dozen! And I only have one? Well, I consoled myself, he has written many more books. It is difficult to be indignant and honored at the same time. I’ll take pleasure that one of my books made the list. As one friend responded, surprised it seems, when I mentioned this. “You’re that popular?” My friend saw this as a badge of honor. Maybe. I suspect it was a fluke.

But let’s get back to “stealing.” To describe the act of downloading a file containing the work of someone else and do what’s necessary to make that file available for free to the rest of the world — would it be fair to call such an act “stealing” or “pirating?” Not everyone agrees, it seems. Some call it “sharing.” Sharing is good. Not sharing is bad. Right?

Okay, but if I take a loaf of bread from the mom and pop store on the corner and I give some of it to others, is this a good thing? Maybe, if everyone involved has fallen on hard times and were in danger of starving to death, I could easily rationalize the deed. But assuming that most pirates or sharers are not in such dire circumstances and can probably continue living not having read my latest book, then maybe there is something wrong with this so-called generosity. Dire circumstances aside, the reason it is wrong is that mom and pop cannot sell that loaf of bread. It’s gone. They will have to pay the supplier even so. Something of theirs was taken from them.

But, the sharer would say, we’re not talking about something that is in limited supply. By taking that file, we have not diminished the supply at all. There is an unlimited supply in the virtual world. Essentially, in this case, that loaf of bread on the shelf, though taken, is still there.

Interesting point. Magical even to those of us who grew up in both a more and less material world. But if the books sell less, then maybe the publisher tells the writer to take a hike, maybe more than one writer. And because there are fewer writers and fewer books, the publisher must eliminate others who work at the publishing house — editors, proofreaders, designers, the people who coded the e-book in the first place — all because someone felt entitled to the work he or she had no hand in creating. It was merely appropriated — a kinder word than “stealing.”

On the discussion boards there are arguments to counter this notion as well. One is, and it’s not an argument without merit, that if these people who pirate or share other people’s work had to pay for them, they wouldn’t buy them. Simple as that. They are only taking things they wouldn’t buy anyway. Even though they read my book, I haven’t lost a sale because there was never going to be a sale. So again, nothing is lost. And in fact, some would point out that with more readers, the word of mouth would increase and so would sales of the book, if those friends of pirates didn’t appropriate it themselves.

What if there were (I suspect there isn’t, but theoretically speaking) a way to perfectly protect a reading file, would people who now make free downloads available and those who download them for free simply stop reading books or never start reading them in the first place? This is what that argument says. Only if that argument is true — and I can’t believe it is — would that mean nothing is lost. In the end, writing, designing, editing and proof reading are ways people earn their livings.

Perhaps a more damning argument against pirating is that they are offered on web sites that accept advertising — often from big, multi-national corporations. So those who pirate the works, especially of authors who make a modest or less than modest living, do so to support that already well-heeled one percent. Any claim to nobility of purpose is pretty much erased.

CAPTION: Abbie Hoffman's famous, early seventies anti-establishment book ended up on The New York Times Best Sellers list and made him tons of money.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Pairing — What We Do For Love Or What's Love Got To Do With It?

They call it a “mockumentary.” Nicole Kidman, in one of the best roles of her career, plays a character who narrates her own shameless path to fame. When she discovers that not only is her husband not the least bit ambitious but also has a desire to have a real family, she realizes he is a drag on her career. Something has to be done. Whether you love or hate Kidman, the movie will work for you, I promise. And in this era devoted to people who will do anything to be famous — and second-rate cheesy stardom is acceptable — To Die For (1995) seems to anticipate our sad, Kardashian world. This smart, dark comedy was written by Buck Henry and was directed by Gus Van Sant. The film also features excellent performances from Matt Dillon as the all-too-average husband and Joaquin Phoenix as the lovesick puppy who would do anything for the woman he loves.

True Romance, 1993, was written by Quentin Tarantino. And there’s no question that director Tony Scott went with the flow. The film reflects the Tarantino spirit. It is funny and brutal. Gratuitous violence? Oh yes. It’s Tarantino’s stamp and there’s plenty of it here. There is also plenty of star power, though many of the big names — Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson, James Gandolfini and Gary Oldman, have only brief, but richly rendered appearances. The scene between Walken and Hopper is worth the price of admission alone. At first, I thought Walken was stealing the scene…but Hopper almost evens the playing field. Brad Pitt is hilarious. However, the film is primarily about the characters played and played well by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, who like Kidman in To Die For, narrates the story.

In a sense, both films are about what people will do for unqualified love or what they do when they are the objects of that kind of love. And in that sense, even though they are both dark comedies told from the point of view of beautiful blondes, these two films are very different. And after last week’s gruesome twosome, this pairing is lots of fun.

To accompany the first film, my suggestion is have a light beer — maybe pale ale. For the second, go with a Sicilian Red, perhaps a Primitivo.

CAPTION: Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in True Romance

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Nostalgic Look Back, Some Who Weathered The Storm

We began this series talking about how many of the big bookstores have disappeared in the recent but fast-breaking wave toward ebook domination. No Borders or Barnes & Noble inside San Francisco’s city limits. Virgin, Stacey’s, and Cody’s are gone from here. But some, who were around before these stores were even built have come and gone.

During my brief but enjoyable stint as editor of the Nob Hill Gazette, I assigned myself a story that required me to explore Francisco’s bookstores. What a job. (What would I assign myself next? Bakeries, gelato joints?) That would be 1983. Many of the bookstores I wrote about then have also disappeared. However, some have survived.

So, as I contemplated what bookstores would be next in this ongoing series, I began to look at Antiquarian bookstores. That’s when I remembered doing that article I wrote a little more than a quarter of a century ago. I wondered which bookstores I wrote about and what I said.

Of course, there was City Lights, which still exists and still shines as does its owner and co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But there was another famous bookstore owner here in the City — Warren Howell.

“Warren Howell, son of the man who founded John Howell Books in 1912, is regarded as the “dean of bookmen,” a title he both earned and relishes,” I wrote then. He was the person to go to if you wanted first editions of works by Keats, Whitman and Spencer. He once possessed a Samuel Johnson dictionary and first-edition hand-printed copy of Ulysses signed by James Joyce. His store on Post Street was often regarded as the best Antiquarian bookstore on the West Coast. It is gone now.

However, the Argonaut Book Shop, founded in 1941, still exists and is a highly respected dealer in antiquarian books, particularly about the history of California and the American West. If you want to know what a bookshop is supposed to look like, this is it. At least that was Alfred Hitchcock’s opinion when he ordered a replica of the store built in Hollywood for a scene in his film, Vertigo. In addition to its Western literature orientation, the shop has a broad selection of books on the American Civil War as well as posters from World War One and other maps, prints, and photographs.

786 Sutter Street, (415) 474-9067,

For those who miss John Howell Books, don’t despair. There’s a fine, antiquarian bookshop just off Union Square. John Windle Antiquarian Booksellers occupies a large suite in a building full of highly respected, fine art galleries. Unlike the galleries, wide open and generously lit, the shop seems more like a sacred library, a place where one might uncover the next DaVinci code. And as the mood suggests, the store specializes in medieval illuminated text manuscripts and “illustrated books and fine bindings from the 15th through the 20th centuries.

49 Geary, Suite 233, (415) 986-5826,

I wouldn’t consider Fields Bookstore to be antiquarian. However, the fact that it has been around since 1932 — in the same location — gives it some historic authority. This shop was in my original story in the Gazette under the category of “Metaphysical.” This wasn’t the stereotypical California “vibe” kind of metaphysics. This is oriented to series readers of esoteric and magical studies, major Eastern religions, Jungian psychology and considerably more. They deal in both new and used books and because this is the only bookstore for what is now being called “Polk Village,” they also have a selection of general interest bestsellers as well.

1419 Polk Street, (415) 673-2027,

Other bookstores have disappeared since my original article was published. You might remember Small Press Traffic, which specialized in books by individuals and independent publishers. Richard Hilkert Bookseller, Ltd., was a rare books shop on the pre-trendy Hayes Street. There was McDonalds, a gigantic used bookstore, noted for its dust and lack of organization. Two stores devoted to film and theatre — Limelight and Drama Books — are now among the missing. Old Wives Tales was a store was devoted to books for, by and about women. And well before Different Light bit the dust recently, the first of its kind in San Francisco, Walt Whitman Gay Bookstore, went out of business. You might also remember Paperback Traffic, which had a huge store on Polk and a second later on Castro. There were others. And there will be others even as the whole idea of reading approaches new frontiers.

Caption: Detail from the celestial ceiling mural at Fields Bookstore. The artist is Shelley Masters

Monday, November 7, 2011

Blatant Promotion, From The Beginning — Book Number One: Stone Veil

This is the first of four posts about the early Deets Shanahan mysteries, just now reissued in trade paperback and e-book formats.

Dietrich Shanahan was born late in life — mine and his. I had this notion that if I created an older private eye and set him in a city like Indianapolis that I was being original. As it turned out, I wasn’t original at all. There were other, older PIs plying the gumshoe trade and lauded mystery writer Michael Z. Lewin, who pioneered the idea of regional private eyes, set his Albert Samson private series in Indianapolis years before. However, the dogged, curmudgeonly Deets Shanahan made it anyway. Stone Veil is his very first case. And in this premiere, the reader meets many of the characters who appear throughout the ten Shanahan novels.

What the story is about:

The sixty-nine-year-old semi-retired private detective reluctantly takes the case of Mrs. William B. Stone who seems to have lost track of her husband. Shanahan, who finds his once lonely life complicated by an attractive younger woman, nevertheless finds his client's husband almost immediately. But the job isn't over. The problem is the man is dead and buried in his own back yard. Who did it and why leads the detective to the city's meaner streets where the veil of secrecy is finally lifted.

What the reviewers said at the time:

“Intricate, lusty, funny, moving adventure about believably vulnerable characters.” — Publishers Weekly

"The interest in this fine novel its characters, especially the appealing Shanahan, keenly aware of death's proximity as he re-engages with life." — Houston Post

"The pragmatic investigator makes a good first impression." — The New York Times

UPDATE: At the moment, Stone Veil is available in trade paperback from Amazon and in ebook on Nook from Barnes & Noble. Kindle and i-Book versions coming soon.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Film Pairing — The Gruesome Twosome

Many of us find stories about hit men and women interesting. In Bruges is one of my favorites. But serial killers? Less so, I think. Perhaps its because hired killers usually involve interaction between evil and lesser evil. Maybe even murder with a moral purpose. We know why this person is being killed. Dexter is a serial hit man and, as such, seems to get some sort of exemption. He kills bad people. We can argue the morality of it. But serial killers, people who kill for unknowable or unimaginable reasons, are another story. If this kind of motiveless killing, this kind of random victim selection, this kind of darkness exists in human souls how can any of us imagine we are safe from evil? Ever? This makes many viewers uncomfortable.

If you are willing to cross that line, here are two dark, but dissimilar films with this uncomfortable premise. They promise an edgy night at home.

Mr. Brooks exemplifies the notion that a pillar of the community can have, for some unknown, perhaps unknowable, reason a desire to create art with death as the medium. Kevin Costner plays the killer pillar and Demi Moore plays the cop. Many twists and turns here. Some say too many. However, for me the 2007 film holds together. One fascinating twist is that the fastidious killer has an admirer, a stalker. I suggest you make this the first feature of the evening. It is gruesome, but far less viscerally so than the second feature.

Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are magnetic in this extremely dark tale about a serial killer taking it upon himself to punish those who have engaged in one of the seven deadly sins. The cinematography is magnificently depraved — rain, dimly lit and distressed interiors. A general sense of rot, decay and despair permeate the film. And while Seven pretends to pose a certain philosophical question, the answer will certainly not cheer you up. The story is tight, well constructed and diabolical. The end, even if you should guess it, is ingeniously and disturbingly fitting. Released in 1995 and directed by David Fincher, the film also features Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Spacey.

What’s a good drink to accompany a night of serial killers? Something warming and reassuring, maybe. Cognac. By the end of Seven, you might want to move on to something stronger.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Lower Fillmore: Mix of African American and Japanese Culture

This is part of an ongoing series of short articles about San Francisco’s bookstores. While their numbers are dwindling, there are still many one-of-a-kind shops in various one-of-a-kind San Francisco neighborhoods.

The area is variously described as the Lower Fillmore, Lower Pacific Heights and Japantown. Whatever you call it, the neighborhood is richly supplied with restaurants, bakeries and shops, with high-end shops getting higher as you go north on Fillmore. Going south means jazz and jazz clubs. Two bookstores with a focus on specific cultures are within a couple of blocks of each other. One is a small, intimate shop specializing in African American literature and the other, a gigantic store featuring books specializing in all things Japanese.

Marcus Books — They bill themselves as “the oldest black independent bookstore in the country,” and have stores in both San Francisco and Oakland. You might find a little jazz just outside the door. Inside you’ll find a warm and welcoming atmosphere with comfortable places to sit. They have an extensive children’s section, shelves full of books on black history and culture as well as African American romances and mysteries. The store is located in an area that appears to be re-establishing its legendary African American and jazz roots in great style. The famous Yoshi’s is a few blocks south on Fillmore as are other jazz clubs.

1712 Fillmore Street, (415) 346-4222,

Kinokyniya Bookstore — We’re bending the rules a bit here. This huge, two-story bookstore specializing in Japanese culture is part of an international chain that has, in fact, seven stores in the US alone. However, it is the only store of its kind in the city. Located in the Japan Center, the main entrance is on the second level, amidst all sorts of Japanese shops — sweets, stationery, furniture, flowers, gifts — and restaurants. The store has a wide selection of Japanese language magazines, music, DVDs, novels and other books as well a lower floor dedicated to anime and manga. For those who do not speak Japanese, there is an ample supply of books in English as well, especially those covering architecture, interior design and Buddhism. One could easily spend the day in the Japan Center complex, but wandering east on Post will provide an even greater range of neat shops and restaurants throughout the Japantown neighborhood.

(415) 567-7625, 1581 Webster,